“Word & Image: Contemporary Artists Connect to Fraktur”

Free Library of Philadelphia
1901 Vine Street, Central Library
March 2, 2015–June 14, 2015

Elaine Reichek, Sampler (Their Manners Are Decorous), 1992, hand embroidery on linen, 13.25 x 14.75".

“Word & Image”—one of two shows together presented as “Framing Fraktur”—sprawls throughout the Free Library’s lobby, corridors, and archives, exploring ties between historical fraktur—eighteenth- to nineteenth-century Pennsylvania German manuscript-based folk art—and the practices of seven contemporary artists who treat words as visual or material compositional elements as much as carriers of verbal information. Curated by Judith Tannenbaum, the exhibition interweaves conceptually—and sometimes spatially—with the concurrent archival presentation “Quill & Brush,” organized by Lisa Minardi. Vitrines, tucked in a first-floor corridor and filled with contemporary works alongside fraktur facsimiles, provide a primer on the exhibition’s themes. Anthony Campuzano’s case, for example, includes a drawing with text, Autobiography: Emily Dickinson via Frances Farmer, 2004, next to the watercolor fraktur Spiritual Labyrinth, 1785. Both works crush text as mark making into claustrophobic, repetitive layouts that reinforce their words’ emotive subject matter.

Embracing fraktur’s blurring of fine art and utilitarian design, artist Marian Bantjes has created the show’s ornate primary-colored graphic identity, which flutters on tall banners between the library’s exterior columns, heads up marketing materials, and graces the catalogue’s cover. On the second floor, three of Bantjes’s Framing Fraktur, 2014, pencil studies on gridded paper, adapted from archival fraktur letterforms, hang not far from Elaine Reichek’s modest needlepoint work Sampler (Kruger/Holzer), 1998. Serving as a critical microcosm of the exhibition—and positing that formal similarities between fraktur and current art belie significant differences in values—Reichek’s work places oft-embroidered eighteenth-century idioms (“Do as you would be done by”) in contentious dialogue with appropriated contemporary phrases, such as Jenny Holzer’s 1977 truism “Abuse of power comes as no surprise.”

Becky Huff Hunter